The curious case of the can in the can

Dear Lucy: I was just in the bathroom at work reading the fine print on a can of germicide spray. It says that it’s for “hard porous surfaces” and that it is effective against HIV among other things. What gives? I thought the HIV virus couldn't live outside bodily fluids. Am I wrong? —Nancy Drew

Illustration of a female detective looking through a magnifying glass at an aerosol can placed on the back of a toilet seat

Dear Girl Detective: According to the results of multiple bathroom-habit surveys—yes, there are such things—you’re not alone in reaching for the nearest reading material while sitting on the throne. Up to three-quarters of those with the time and inclination to answer such polls say they read in the bathroom, though Lucy is hoping most of them find something more scintillating than the fine print on a container of germicide spray! 

That said, Lucy is delighted that your visit to the loo yielded such an interesting question to investigate.  And Lucy knew just where to turn for the answer: MIT Medical’s associate medical director, Howard Heller, M.D., a specialist in infectious diseases. According to Heller, laboratory experiments have shown HIV remaining viable—e.g. “living”—for hours, even days, after being suspended in 10% serum, dried onto the glass coverslips of microscope slides, and then maintained at exactly the right temperature and humidity levels. “The key phrase being ‘laboratory experiments,’” Heller emphasizes. “In the real world,” he tells Lucy, “HIV does not get transmitted through inanimate objects or surfaces, with the exception of sex toys.”

While most people today know that HIV can’t be transmitted through casual contact with other people or objects, it’s an important point to reiterate, especially when cans of germicide seem to contradict what we think we know. Lucy thanks you for giving her the opportunity to clarify this issue. —Lucy

Back to Ask Lucy Information contained in Ask Lucy is intended solely for general educational purposes and is not intended as professional medical advice related to individual situations. Always obtain the advice of a qualified healthcare professional if you need medical diagnosis, advice, or treatment. Never disregard medical advice you have received, nor delay getting such advice, because of something you read in this column.